Travis Head’s fluent 146 not out against India turns WTC final Australia’s way
As Travis Head jogged down the wicket to complete his 100th run, Steve Smith raised a gloved hand for a congratulatory high-five. It was just about the only thing Head failed to make clean contact with all day, flicking mainly fingers as the batters crossed. Some of the fielders might have been tempted to flick a few fingers in his direction as well, Head having arrived at the crease with India dominant before powerfully, remorselessly, turning the flow of the game in Australia’s favour and hauling them to 327 for three at the close.
A few hours earlier India had won the toss – greeted by a partisan crowd as if the Beatles had just walked on stage at Shea Stadium – and chosen to suffer. At that point it was cold and cloudy, and they had perhaps noticed that on both occasions Surrey won the toss at the Oval in the County Championship this year they had elected to field. For as long as those conditions lasted they could expect to prosper, but in the end they had only an hour.
It would not be as profitable as they had hoped, but it was fabulously compelling, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj performing a sustained, aggressive examination of Australia’s top order. Usman Khawaja fell in the fourth over, feathering an edge through to Srikar Bharat off Siraj for a 10-ball duck, allowing the same bowler to get to work on Marnus Labuschagne. One ball bounced painfully into the Australia No 3’s left thumb and a few more whistled past the edge, once with a delicious delivery moving away off the seam.
As drinks were taken midway through the morning session Australia had scored 29 at just 2.4 runs an over, the sun was starting to emerge from behind the morning cloud, and the period of high drama and low scoring was over.
That was clearly Warner’s conclusion: 17 off 33 at that stage, he scored 26 off the next 26 balls he faced, 16 of them coming in the space of five Umesh Yadav deliveries, a real-time highlights reel of cover drives and late cuts.
But just before lunch, and having looked in the kind of form that would have concerned not just India but any watching members of the England team, Warner fell, the victim of an excellent low catch from Bharat behind the stumps after a poor delivery from Shardul Thakur flicked a glove on its way through. And just after the interval Labuschagne followed, Shami’s first post-prandial delivery fired between bat and pad and into off stump.
At 76 for three these should have been nervous moments for Australia, but from the start Head appeared immune. The 29-year-old got off the mark with a boundary off Shami, and 59 balls later reached his half-century with another off Thakur and kept motoring.
“If runs are presented, if the ball is there to score off, I’m trying to score off it,” Head said. “There were some challenging periods, but the ball goes to the boundary pretty quickly if you find the middle of the bat.”
At the other end Steve Smith looked considerably less fluent and for a while almost stopped scoring altogether, moving from 12 after 26 balls to 13 after another 26. He also rode his luck at times, and there were three occasions when he edged the ball only for it not to carry, not even nearly, to the cordon. But there were also 14 boundaries, some beautiful straight and cover drives, and the occasional brutal dismissal of Ravindra Jadeja, and all the while at the other end Head was providing more than enough momentum for two.
There was a moment, not long after Head arrived at the crease, when the ball caught a leading edge and looped just wide of gully, but that was as close as India came to dismissing him during an innings that married aggression and control. After tea Head powered Jadeja’s next delivery through cover for four and when Yadav started the following over he did the same again, the fielders’ frustration rising as rapidly as his score.
Not since 24 January has Head played against anyone but India – he had not played at all since March – and in this case familiarity bred contentment.
As he closed in on his century India tried to slow his scoring with a diet of short balls. “We always felt this was an area we could exploit against him,” their bowling coach, Paras Mhambrey, said. “We could have done it a little earlier but you’ve got to trust the captain to go with his instincts and he felt it wasn’t right to go with that strategy.”
It wasn’t right when Rohit Sharma did go with it, either. True, there was some uneven bounce, and one awkward evasive manoeuvre had Head toppling backwards to the ground – gleefully celebrated by a crowd by this point desperate for something to be happy about. But he also flicked successive Shami deliveries over the cordon, one off the toe of his bat for four and the next off the middle for six, and later did much the same to Thakur with a nonchalance that verged on contempt.
By stumps the partnership had contributed 251 and, with Head on 146 and Smith on 95, there is the promise of more high-fives to come.